And so continues the Breaking Down Walls series. I’m really passionate about changing perspectives and making people stop and think. I truly despise the walls that we, as a society, build up around and against each other; stereotypes and prejudice are hurtful and should be eradicated in my humble opinion. A true but sad fact of life is that we’ve learned, from a very early age, to build up such walls. I hope I can penetrate some of these walls by bringing light to such situations. I hope this series will help me to process why these walls exist and open up your mind as you follow my blog posts.
Last month, I met a woman named Greta. She is Russian-Armenian but lives in the Netherlands. Greta is an Armenian refugee, and she lives in a refugee camp.
Greta lives in a bungalow the size of approximately 1000 square feet. Each bungalow houses four families. Their living quarters are shared. The tiny kitchen is shared. The tiny bathroom is shared. The residents — prisoners? — of these camps are not always of the same ethnicity nor nationality, but there are thousands of Armenian refugees living in camps like these throughout the Netherlands. Refugee children have no access to basic education except for Dutch language school. Upon entering the refugee camp, I instantaneously felt a thick sense of foreboding as if there was something outrightly, even humanely wrong. The feeling stayed with me until we exited the camp two hours later. By the end of our visit, I realized what made me feel that way: there is no sense of hope in these camps.
We Americans could only speak a few Armenian words. “Barev. Inches ah-noon-us?” Hello. What is your name? We could extend a simple hello and offer listening ears. It is the latter that gave these wonderful people the platform to speak. Greta and the other refugees spoke hurriedly as if this chance to be heard was fleeting. They spoke of the intense sadness they felt, the injustice they live through each day. We are not meant to live this way.
I asked our Armenian translator, “How do you say, ‘can I hold you hand?’?
I asked Greta if I could hold her hand. She said, “Of course!” with tears in her eyes. With a hug and only a few words, I offered Greta the assurance that I would spread her story to whoever would listen…while she waited.
Waiting. Waiting. Waiting.
We heard the story of a man who had waited eight years. Eight years for residency in a country he could not yet call his own. Eight years for any type of status that would not label him as “illegal alien.” Eight years for a new life with his wife and daughter away from their home country. Eight years for “what could be” instead of “what was back then.”
It took only one day for those eight years of waiting to abruptly come to an end. You see, that man and his family are also Russian-Armenian refugees in the Netherlands. And in the refugee camp where they had been waiting for years and years, there is a strict rule that all refugees must obey. This rule states that refugees must stay within a 30km (18.64mi) radius outside of the camp. One step out of the 30km is immediate cause for deportation.
That man stepped out of the 30km. He broke the rule to see his wife and daughter in a city that was more than 30km away. He went to see his wife and daughter who actually had papers to stay in the Netherlands. Eight years for papers. His wife and daughter were now waiting for him to get his papers.
When you’re a refugee, you make a case against the country you emigrated from. Given that this man and his family are Russian-Armenians, they must have put it on the record that they could no longer live in Russia. For whatever reason, Russia was unfit and unlivable for them anymore; this family felt that the Netherlands could provide a better life for them. When this man got deported, he was therefore not sent back to Russia; legally, the government could not send him back to his home country. So they deported him to Armenia because he’s ethnically Armenian.
This man now has no family, no money, no shelter, no job, and no status in Armenia. He is an illegal immigrant once more and has been stripped of everything he knows.
Greta is the mother of the man who got deported. She and her husband have not heard from their son in two months because refugees are not allowed to receive mail at the camp. The silence is deafening, and waiting for any news makes it far worse.
Yes, rules are rules. And this man broke the rules and thus was deported. But what an unhumanitarian way to treat someone. Is it wrong to go and see your wife and kid? I think not. It should not be so black and white.
This is not the life that these refugees were looking for. These camps, these rules, these living situations: they are meant to break families apart, to force people back to their own countries. There is a clear message: you are not wanted here.
Greta’s story and her son’s story are only two of many. I did not know that this was going on in the Netherlands in the present day. The Armenian refugees that we met cling onto whatever hope they can muster. In our two hour visit, I hope we chipped away at the sense of hopelessness that pervaded that camp. We fervently hope that the walls in the Netherlands can and will be broken. But look around you: in the States, there are countless refugees that have similar lifestyles. They work our crop fields, and they clean our office buildings — they live lives that we don’t want to live, and they do jobs that we sure as hell would not want to do. The “illegal aliens” in the States may not be in camps, but they fear daily that they will be deported because they feel and are unwanted. They are waiting for a better life.
I want Greta’s voice to be heard. I want people to know about the situation in the Netherlands: there are thousands of Armenian refugees waiting for a better life. I want the world to know that the Armenian refugees are not a forgotten people.